Much attention has been put on policies and procedures, but we must also consider the crucial role technology plays in helping law enforcement serve our communities

This article was originally published in the Tech Trends column on here

While this column is intended to address technology trends in security, there is a bigger, broader issue to address right now that straddles the line between technology, social and political canvases. Law enforcement is facing their most trying times in recent memory, and it has direct implications on security and police technology.

This is not a political statement. Regardless of your political affiliation, we can all agree that law enforcement is facing some of the heftiest challenges and remains under the most powerful microscope it has seen in decades. 

Some would say there is a perfect storm working against them:

  • Acrimony towards law enforcement has reached unprecedented levels, at least partially fueled by a high-profile series of deaths of people in police custody or control. This has resulted in a dearth of trust and respect for law enforcement officers, preventing them from policing effectively and leading to calls for major reforms and department defunding.
  • The COVID-19 pandemic is putting added financial and economic stress on individuals and communities. Though unemployment has recovered slightly it remains at historic levels, fueling criminal activity. Retail theft and shrinkage are up. Organized retail crime is at an all-time high. Mask mandates are making it increasingly difficult for law enforcement to identify perpetrators of crimes.
  • Law enforcement spends increasing time conducting activities that distract from preventing or responding to criminal activity. In many communities, more than 95% of alarms that lead to a police dispatch are false. 
  • Law enforcement is continually being required to provide social services for which they have not been trained or educated.
  • Critical crime fighting and investigative tools – such as facial recognition technology and artificial intelligence – are under intense scrutiny and are increasingly facing bans and other restrictions in jurisdictions across the country.

Defunding is Not the Answer

A common rhetoric being heavily touted is the concept of “defunding” police departments. While a few communities have taken this quite literally, the concept in reality is shorthand for redirecting budgeted funds from police into social workers, mental health counseling and other community-focused efforts aimed at social justice.

The need for enhanced funding for those types of social services is absolutely necessary; however, this funding should not come at the expense of crucial police services. Many communities need increased police resources, and social service providers are currently not capable of taking over or substituting for police presence.

I live in Louisville, Ky., where the topic of racial inequality and social injustice has been thrust to the forefront, driving a national debate over the role law enforcement plays in our communities. These debates have amplified the need for police reform, and many organizations have provided recommendations covering a variety of subject areas. 

Many of these recommended reforms are procedural in nature, while many involve the use of technology. All will be considered logical, necessary, and in some cases, controversial.

Logical Police Reforms

Many recommendations are intended to address the manner in which law enforcement conducts themselves. “Police departments must transform themselves from reactive police forces to proactive police services,” says Dan Keller, Executive Director of the American Crime Prevention Institute. “Logical reforms should be employed to address the widening distrust of police from the communities they serve.”

Training is the most logical first step. While police officers and administrators are subjected to many hours of training currently, there is no national standard or commonly accepted curriculum for jurisdictions to follow. They are left to their own judgement for the types of training administered, and this often excludes non-traditional topics such as community engagement.

National standards for police training and education should be developed and cover topics such as procedural justice, de-escalation and crisis intervention techniques, mitigation of implicit bias, crime prevention, community engagement and problem-oriented policing. Additionally, consistent standards should be developed for use of force and police qualifications, supported by a national police conduct registry. Policies such as qualified immunity and social crisis intervention should be reviewed and reconsidered.

Reforms Should Include Technology

Police are increasingly reliant on advanced and emerging technology to conduct their duties effectively and efficiently. According to Motorola, the average police officer carries 26 connected devices at any one time. Video surveillance, body-worn cameras, facial recognition, social media monitoring and many other solutions have been widely adopted by agencies across the country and can serve as highly valuable tools for aiding law enforcement’s fight against criminal activity.

Many of these technologies, however, have come under significant scrutiny in recent years. Facial recognition has been banned for use by police in San Francisco, Portland, Boston, Oakland and other cities, with law makers citing inherent racial bias in the technology. Social media monitoring has been decried as an invasion of privacy. Nearly any new technology labeled “artificial intelligence” is receiving intense resistance.

Technology must play a key role in helping law enforcement protect our communities effectively; however, in order to enable this in today’s changing world, broad police reform must also consider technological evolution and ensure police have access to every tool possible. Furthermore, funding should be considered for advanced technologies that can help identify, respond and predict criminal activity. 

Top technologies should include: 

Facial Recognition and Artificial Intelligence – Guidelines should be deployed to ensure the proper ethical use of these technologies, and particularly to ensure training models are implemented to prevent racial or other types of bias.

Body-Worn Cameras – National standards should be developed to ensure officers properly utilize this technology that protects both the public at large and the officers wearing them.

Verified Alarm Response – This issue has been around for many years, but we still lack any centralized or consistent guideline on its use and enforcement.

More than 750,000 police officers in the United States put their lives on the line every day to protect the livelihoods many of us take for granted. It is up to us and our communities to give them the best chance to do their jobs effectively. We will all benefit.